Thinking About Thinking

Simplicity Is Hard

Posted in Technology by larrycheng on June 9, 2009

For every consumer or mass market company I have invested in – there has been one consistent product management theme: simplicity.  While many competitors try to build in more capabilities, more functionality, more content, more, more, more – the winners tend to be incredibly skilled at keeping things very simple.  It plays itself out again and again, you don’t have to be first to market, nor the most full featured, not even the most attractive – you just have to be the simplest.  Some examples:

  • SurveyMonkey is the market leader in the online surveying space.  They have barely touched the product in 5 years.  There are hundreds of online surveying options but they continue to dominate because they are the simplest. 
  • Craigslist is drop dead simple, and I’d argue drop dead ugly.  But, they are the market leader in online classifieds because of the former, not the latter.
  • I just got the Flip UltraHD video camera.  It’s the perfect example of out of the box simplicity.  They are not the only digital video camera, but they are the only one that Cisco bought for $590M.
  • You can’t talk simplicity and not talk about all the Apple products – Mac, iPod, iPhone.  Again and again, not the first to market, but just the simplest. 

Over the years, I have come to appreciate that building a product, service or application that is defined by its simplicity is extraordinarily hard.  It takes real talent and ingenuity to create simplicity.  And once you have achieved it – it is as real a barrier to entry as a slew of patents or technical secret sauce.  Simplicity is that valuable. 

22 Responses

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  1. Joshua Karp said, on June 9, 2009 at 9:26 pm

    In your example, “complex” is not the opposite of “simple,” as it can be quite complex to provide value and keep the interface simple, i.e. the Apple examples. And I don’t know if your statements on simplicity have always been true… take a look at a prior generation or two of Oracle Financials or SAP, or even an OS like Windows. I would agree that simplicity is a goal, but not necessarily an indication or harbinger of success. Finally, when eliminating the outliers like Apple, have you done or seen an analysis on the size of venture exits compared to the simplicity of the product? I haven’t, but I might guess that the more “complex” the solution, the better the exit…

    • larrycheng said, on June 9, 2009 at 9:30 pm

      Joshua – fair point. I did start the post by saying consumer or mass market product. Oracle/SAP are less mass market in my opinion. Windows clearly is. I’d interpret the post less as a rule, but more as an observation.

    • Ho Nam said, on June 9, 2009 at 11:19 pm

      Oracle, SAP and Microsoft all started with pretty simple solutions. Initial products were seen as “toys” (like most disruptive technologies) by the incumbants. Hard to come up with a really successful company (the outliers as you call them) that did not have small, simple, humble beginnings. Google started off with one product. Pretty damned simple. Same with Yahoo, HP, Dell, Intuit, Autodesk, Adobe, SAS. Even IBM, GE, P&G, J&J, Coca Cola, Berkshire Hathaway. Over time, companies that survive and thrive become more complex. Companies grow or they stagnate and eventually die (most Fortune 500 companies get off the list faster than it took to get on). Since most markets don’t grow forever, they enter new markets, develop new lines of business, etc. They end up entering new businesses, they acquire companies and get more and more complex.

  2. Asif said, on June 9, 2009 at 9:26 pm

    You could add Twitter to this list, which is how I found this post.

  3. FN said, on June 9, 2009 at 9:36 pm

    The marketing/messaging is simple…the products themselves are quite complicated…that’s the brilliance. What makes folks like Steve Jobs rare is that they are biathletes…they understand the complexity of product design and the simplicity of marketing.

  4. Stephen J said, on June 9, 2009 at 10:23 pm

    Seems to be this is the meme of the day. Fred Wilson had an excellent post covering similar ground asking the question “what drives consumer adoption”, simplicity was a key theme http://www.avc.com/a_vc/2009/06/what-drives-consumer-adoption-of-new-technologies.html

  5. Jules said, on June 9, 2009 at 10:32 pm

    As a developer of consumer products for my whole career, I think about this a lot, and have since I was a teenager. In fact I was pitching an investor today and I said, “I am good at two things. Reading consumer trends, and answering them with simple experiences and products.” So I was happy to hear that you thought that was a common thread among successful consumer investments. (I wondered if I just sounded simple-minded after I said it.)

    Anyway, at the risk of a bit of repetition, here’s a blog post I wrote about this topic awhile back; I echo some of your same thoughts and examples:

    Simplicity. It’s powerful. It’s hiding in plain sight. And it’s very, very hard to achieve.

    Why so powerful? Because people are overloaded. They ache for experiences that are intuitive and instantly engage and delight them.

    Why is it hiding in plain sight? Look at the success of the Flip Camera, Gilt Groupe, iPod, Twitter, Tumblr. Those products and sites boil an activity or a commerce experience down to its simplest essence.

    We hope Daily Grommet will join this list of products and experiences that deliver simplicity. Or, as what Jeremy Greenfield called us…the “anti-Amazon.” It’s something my pal Rudy Rouhana explained to me, “The place to be is either where eBay or Amazon are…offer everything. Or where you are…offer one thing. The middle is death.”

    Why is it so hard to achieve? Because to get there, you have to know where you are going. You have to know what you really want and, more importantly, what will matter to your customer. That takes a lot of vision, and and an equal measure of discipline.

    But when it is achieved, simplicity is as obvious and refreshing, as it was difficult to attain.

    • larrycheng said, on June 9, 2009 at 10:36 pm

      Love it Jules – simplicity is “hiding in plain sight”. It is definitely one of those things when you achieve it – and someone else sees it, they always wonder why they didn’t do it that way since it seems so obvious. But, it is indeed very difficult to attain. Hope Daily Grommet is going gangbusters.

  6. Jin said, on June 10, 2009 at 12:56 am

    Good post Larry. I think it might be safe to say that simplicity will become more valuable as the world becomes more complex. The value of simplicity especially in products and services can be applied to most business in my opinion. You brought up a good example with Apple. I’ve used PCs and Macs for quite some time now. As you have already noted it takes considerable effort to make complex machines like a personal computer simple to use. But there’s another point that I need to make and this is from personal experience. My wife has always used a PC and when I introduced her to a Mac several years ago she said it was difficult to use. That got me thinking. When users are used to a certain way of doing things no matter how simple or easy it is to use that something else might actually be difficult. The way our brain works is based on a system of memory. Once a set of memories is established at higher levels (systems) in our brain it is very difficult to introduce different ways of doing things making something that is simple actually difficult. That system memory needs to be unlearned and relearned and that process is very difficult for most people. This does not negate the value of simplicity in products and services but I do believe there is a certain difficulty for most to begin appreciating simplicity when they are used to complexity.

    • larrycheng said, on June 12, 2009 at 12:08 am

      Jin – this is a great point. I’m a little bit like your wife – I am so used to the PC and all its machinations that an Apple is foreign territory for me.

  7. Rantz Hoseley said, on June 10, 2009 at 1:56 am

    I personally tend to avoid the word “Simplicity” because too many people (on both the customer and business-side base) equate “Simplicity” with “Simplistic” (Read: lacking in features and/or a complete nature). It’s something that got drummed into my head via hundreds of pitch meetings with game publishers, who had a knee-jerk reaction all too often to “a pitch describing the elegant simplicity or the interface”.

    Pitching the same product, to different memnbers of the publishing team, we changed the phrasing a bit. Meaning the same thing, when we phrased the UI and feature-sets as “logically Intuitive”, everyone immediately got what we were talking about without the negative connotations.

    I say this not to disagree with you points, Larry (or any of the commenters speaking on the same lines) but just as an example of how a completely accurate, and powerful phrasing, can be misconstrued as a negative, and then (as an effect of said reaction) developers and companies sometime react in the wrong manner. Rather than clearly defining their intent, they start introducing more and more features, until feature-creep becomes the notable focus (and hence scuttling any simplicity and inuitive interaction, or whatever preferred phrasing one might use)

    One of my key design guidelines, that I do my best to keep in mind at all times, was given to me by one of the first software designers I worked with 15 years ago was :

    “it doesn’t matter WHAT it is… the public falls in love with it if they do not have to question it. They don’t have to read instruction, they don’t have ramp-up on it… it slides sidewise into their natural daily existance without them ever giving it a conscious thought, and it inuitively provides a sense of cause and effec that you naturally *expect*.”

    I think that’s true more often than not, and explains the reactions to consumer tech ranging from Twitter to the Wii, if that makes a bit of sense, There are so many examples in software dev alone where the theoreau stance of ‘Just Simplify” is seen as a bad thing.

    Been liking your topics, obviously… one of the few blogs I’m actively checking. THAT’s a good thing and can be traced back in some regard to the aformentioned simplicity… the draw of a focused strong signal that cut through the noise in brilliant color.

    • larrycheng said, on June 12, 2009 at 12:12 am

      I agree with you Rantz. Simplicity doesn’t mean simplistic at all to me. I actually never thought about whether this blog has a simplicity to it – but if it does to you, I take that as a high compliment.

  8. […] Prompt: Does it make sense to create simple PLM? I enjoyed to read Simplicity is Hard by Larry Cheng. Had few straitforward thoughts out of this. Our PLM systems are damn complex. How […]

  9. […] Cheng at Thinking About Thinking: Over the years, I have come to appreciate that building a product, service or application that is […]

  10. Eric Kim said, on June 11, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    You might be interested in John Maeda’s “Laws of Simplicity” as laid out in his book and blog:

    http://lawsofsimplicity.com/category/laws?order=ASC

    Maeda used to teach computation & aesthetics at the MIT Media Lab, and recently became president at the Rhode Island School of Design. Some of his ten “laws” are banal, others contradictory, and I think that the condensed version on the blog is much better than the 100-page exposition in the book. But overall he has an interesting dig into some of the same themes you’re exploring.

  11. Dharmesh Shah said, on June 29, 2009 at 12:06 am

    Great article. I could not agree more.

    I’ll echo what Eric said about taking a look at Maeda’s work.

    You might also enjoy this (relatively short) video:

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